All night I sweated like a pork sausage in a condom in an oven in a Caribbean rainy season.
Finally, at 1am, tormented by Cartagena’s heat, I stood under my shower – the water like a boiled kettle atop my skull.
I’ll be tired for class tomorrow I guess. I lay sprawled under my bed with my fan so close it was like a cat purring, curled on my chest. A slight reprieve until my skin dried. Not quite enough to sleep.
Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński nailed this feeling in his description of Africa:
“I was dripping with sweat, but others, too, were drenched – sweat prevented you from being incinerated on the summer’s blazing pyre.”
I woke in the morning to a small miracle. The sun was not out. I was immediately distrustful…. probably it is still night, my sleepy brain thought.
Deliciously however, it was 6:30am and raining lightly. I stood on the top floor balcony and looked out across my street. This was a nicer street than where I’d been living – it was considered middle class in Cartagena.
The roofs however were corrugated iron sheets and the powerlines linked to the homes in a dizzying entanglement of black against the drizzly sky.
A creek ran perpendicular to my street and was adorned on both banks with garbage. Once I saw an iguana beneath the bridge there. Skin like hard-boiled leather, green and huge and regal.
“Sorry about your home,” I whispered to him. “Humans are stupid.”
You couldn’t really walk alongside the creek alone because you might get robbed. You had to cut through the suburb and then cut back to the creek simply to cross the footbridge over it. There were a couple of elder gents who took turns sitting on the bridge with a collection tin marked ‘bridge security.’ You could pay them a coin for their efforts. They also sold iceblocks, hedging their bets.
Like usual in the tropics, the sun bit off the head of that delicious fresh morning after about 30 minutes, and resumed its ruthless governance of the sky.
The blind dog and I sat together outside for breakfast. The ideal companion while your brain swims sleepily into the consciousness of day is a dog. It will simply greet you warmly and then shut up. Not like those chirpy morning people who sap your energy before you have cultivated it.
I looked around. Mosquitoes were waking from their potplant nests and shouting at each other that a human (AKA breakfast) and a blind dog were stupidly waiting to be molested.
The baby’s pants, like tiny flags of humanity hung in rows above our heads. The avocado vender bellowed his wares through his megaphone, the wooden wheels of his cart pushing through the streets, his brow and lip beaded as always with pearls of sweat.
The coconut palm in my neighbour’s yard waved lazily in a rare breeze and children, those being who wake with the sun, were already shouting in their street baseball match – snatched moments before their mums wetted and brushed their rebellious curls and marched them off to school.
The Caribbean was waking up.
A passenger jet cut across the sky overhead, a reminder I would be on one in just two months. I pushed the thought out of my head. I could easily live here another two years.
What to teach today.
My 1pm class had at least nine very bright students who wanted to learn English – a true blessing for an English teacher in a Latino country. My 4pm class had around the same.
The problem lay with those who didn’t try. The thing about a language is if you chill, process what has been said to you and implement an ounce of cognitive reasoning it is possible to learn.
Some students however throw up a roadblock in their brains.
“That isn’t Spanish!” yells their brain in a panic.
“We can’t understand that.”
Others watch my actions, think about it and hazard a guess.
Yesterday one of my favourite students was leaving school as I arrived.
“¿A dónde vas?” I asked him.
His English was not good but he always showed up, participated and was respectful. And he had a cracking sense of humour, which I loved.
In Spanish he explained his cousin was killed in a gang shoot-out in Turbaco, a small town about an hour out of Cartagena. The funeral service was in an hour and Turbaco was an hour’s bus ride away.
Well what the hell do you say to that? I excused him from my class.
When something awful happens here the journalists print pictures of it.
I am not talking pictures depicting it; I am talking pictures of it.
When I worked at a newspaper in Australia there were many car crash fatalities. They were often avoidable. As I stood speaking with the police officer beside what was once a person or a car, my heart grieved at the pointlessness, the waste of human life.
I would print a picture of the mangled wreck of the car in hopes it would jolt people into the realisation that sending a text or overtaking with barely enough space can end like this – twisted metal and burnt flesh.
In Cartagena however the pictures are of the dead. A widow, roadside, crying over the body of her husband as he lies beside his crumpled motorbike. Red blood gone black on the bitumen.
A teenager with his skull opened in a machete fight, the contents of that skull spilled out and printed right there, in colour, on the front page of all three local newspapers.
The thing about this information is you cannot judge it through western eyes until you have lived here. Here life is cheaper, simply because there are less rules, less means of safety. People take motorbike taxis because they are half the price of taxi cars. Unless you plan to fly to Colombia and cover the difference you cannot judge the safety measures here.
For around 240 days I have been living here, and for about 200 of those days I have caught moto-taxis. I have had around 5 close calls, where my heart flew into my mouth and I thought, well, at least I got to live my dream before I died.
Fingers crossed I make it through two more months of these rides. I have already seen three who didn’t.
And yet there is a joy here.
When you ask a Colombian how they are, they will very often reply without hesitation “Excelente!”
This never fails to buoy my spirits. These are the people I talk to every day. Street vendors, taxi or moto drivers, fellow professors or housewives sweeping the fat green leaves from the street in front of their houses.
They are not rich but perhaps this is their secret.
This country is filled with music and noise and life. If you cut a Colombian’s arm, music will come out. In the tiendas (little stores that sell everything), on the buses, in the taxis, on the beach, from the boomboxes groups of friends sit around, from the boots of parked cars on Sunday afternoon. It is a place saturated in music.
I often feel like my life has a soundtrack as I walk around on my daily happenings in this city.
The one gift Colombia has given me is contentment. It has re-taught me what I once knew. (I was far more intelligent at 12 than in my 20s).
Life is temporary. At any moment you could be hit by something bigger than you and killed. Especially here!
So enjoy it.
When someone asks you how you are, if you are not replying “Excelente!” it is time to ask yourself why not.
The one thing I will take away from this country is a renewed appreciation for life.
My lungs breathe air and my legs bend whenever I tell them to. I (usually) have food to eat. This already gives me more reason to be happy than a lot of our Earth’s population.
One day I caught a taxi into the historical centre to run errands.
Windows down, and palms beating out the rhythm of salsa on his steering wheel; I looked at my driver’s face. Sea breeze blew into the taxi.
“¿A dónde va mi amor?” he asked me with the chopped coastal Spanish of los costeños.
Where are you going my love?
On the coast they use mi amor (my love), mi reina (my queen) and mi vida (my life). It is something I will dearly miss.
When I asked him how he was he replied “Excelente!” without a second thought.
“Por qué?” I asked.
“Mira,” he said, swinging one hand towards the ocean, “y escucha,” he said, turning up the dial on the salsa.
“La vida es Hermosa.”
(Look…and listen….life is beautiful.)
I crept quietly from my dorm room, the other girls curled in sleep like kittens.
Shoes in hand, I met Laas in the foyer for our 5km run, circumventing the ancient walled city of Cartagena; Centro Historico.
A well-built running partner in South America was a bonus, just in case someone fancied your Ipod.
Past fairytale scenes. Pink bougainvillea sprouting from mint-green walls, yellow-washed balconies with sea-blue trimmings. Dark skinned locals in hip-hugging pants chatted as the neighbourhood woke.
No wonder this was the romantic city. Everything within Cartagena’s old walls was beautiful. The doors were from Colonial times, huge and full of stories.
As my sneakers pounded the brickwork I pictured the Spanish invaders, resplendent in red and gold threads, trotting their carriages in through the thick wooden doors, turning in the spacious interior courtyard, the horses steaming heavily in the humidity.
“You set the tempo,” came Laas’ Denmark accent, breaking my reverie.
‘Get ready to crawl,’ I thought.
We kept up a pretty good pace. It was too early for the pony-drawn carriages that now pulled tourists through the pretty streets, and too early for the barrage of taxis.
The ornate doorknockers looked down at us. Lions, iguanas, a fish king, even a cockatoo.
We picked up the pace, jogging through an opening in the historic wall, out to the morning buzz of traffic; Cartagena was yawning.
Past a park; a man stretched out on his couch, looking across the sea, and tightened the scrap of rope he used as a belt. Another man rifled through an industrial bin. The stench of urine signalled the bedroom of the homeless.
Little waves crashed against the sea wall and palm trees flapped lazily. I looked with disbelief at my new home for a year. Yeah there was highway, but there was also an ancient fortress wall….and a beach.
A breeze cooled my neck (a small miracle in Cartagena I am told). This isn’t so bad I thought, just as The Fleet Foxes sung in my ear… lyrics about a wall.
Under the yawning canopy of fig trees, dark green and glossy. Here the morning was in full swing. It was 6.45am and already the plantain (big bananas) were being deep fried in heart-stopping oil.
The recarga (mobile phone credit) vendors were in their usual spots, surveying all with their usual disdain. The ceviche vendors were still tucked in bed somewhere, no doubt with a fan going full bore.
There was still a slight choke of car fumes, even at this hour, and it made me miss my morning beach runs on Mooloolaba’s white sands. We truly are spoilt in Australia.
We cut back away from the ocean, away from that sea breeze.
As we rounded what I hoped was the final corner of the wall I held four fingers up hopefully in Laas’ direction.
With a laugh he shook his head and signalled we’d only done 3km. The humidity crept over me like an unwanted friend. Holy hell…..what’s it like to run here at 8am!
That night I met up with met a friend for a cerveza (beer) in the square beside the famous clock tower.
He was a Colombian gent from Cali (1.5hrs flight south of Cartagena) and worked around Colombia as a tour guide. We sipped and people-watched as he spilled the beans on the city’s secrets.
“That square is where the slaves were auctioned,” he said.
“And this square here is known as the one of prostitution.”
It wasn’t long before I saw he was right. Groups of women, subtle in their twos or threes, had begun cutting slow and deliberate laps around the packed square.
I had read about the troubling prostitution situation of Cartagena; women who needed the money, drawn to the tourist honeypot of the Old Town.
This report by the always on-the-pulse Vice.com, highlights the sad reality of underage exploitation in Cartagena. Bound to happen in the playground of rich foreigners.
It was an interesting place. Inside the historic walls people whipped out smartphones for selfies, motorbike taxis were banned from entry – to stop drive by handbag thefts- and there was an atmosphere of charm and frivolity.
Outside the walls the feeling changed. Life became real again, the buses were hot and crowded, and many lived life in slums, oblivious to the cavorting within the walls.
In my five days in the city I’d seen little of Cartagena’s other faces, save a hot one-hour bus back from one of the furthest centres where volunteers taught English.
I’d also ventured into a Centro Commericial (small street mall) for the worst haircut of my life.
There were no airs and graces. The lady begrudgingly cut my already short hair, complaining the whole time in Spanish that if she cut anymore off I would be bald.
I knew South Americans preferred long hair but I reminded her through gritted teeth that it was my hair, not hers. She grew increasingly annoyed. At one point I had to take the scissors out of her hand and demonstrate how to thin a fringe.
She was clearly used to trimming the end from Repunzel locks and calling it a day.
“I’m going to charge her 20 for bothering me so much,” she said in Spanish.
My friend translated and I was sure to fish out the exact (agreed upon) price of 15,000 for the hack-fest.
Despite the gringos in the old city I liked how there were also so many costeños. They occupied amazing ground level apartments behind bright yellow, orange or blue painted walls.
In the afternoons costeños cranked up their music, the heady beats of regaeton, cumbia and salsa spinning out into the afternoon heat. They sat out in plastic chairs, the old men often airing their bellies, and threw back tiny espresso shots of tinto.
There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.
If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.